When the Rules Matter After All

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Michael Cohen leaves federal court on August 21, 2018, in New York.

When politicians and their cronies violate ethics and campaign-finance rules, two things can stop them: A legal crackdown, or a political backlash.

Both may now be starting to put the brakes on a political corruption spree that has been building for years and has spun out of control under President Trump. The fallout could reach all the way to the White House, where Trump now stands directly implicated in campaign-finance violations, and may give Democrats a big assist in this fall’s midterms.

Though all eyes were focused this week on Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, both declared guilty on eight counts each of bank, tax, and other criminal violations, the anti-corruption backlash goes well beyond Trump’s former campaign manager and his ex-personal lawyer and fixer. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani may insist that “truth isn’t truth,” but judges, jurors and voters are reasserting that rules do matter after all.

Cohen’s guilty plea on two campaign-finance violations that he says he committed at Trump’s behest follows hard on criminal charges leveled against the first two GOP members of Congress to endorse Trump’s campaign—Representatives Chris Collins of New York and California’s Duncan Hunter. Collins faces allegations of insider trading and lying to the FBI, and has suspended his re-election campaign. Hunter has been indicted, along with his wife, for illegally using political contributions for personal expenses.

House Democrats, in the meantime, have turned a long list of once-safe Republican districts into close contests that could win them the majority this fall, thanks in part to an anti-corruption message that’s resonating with voters. Several Democratic challengers are running on pledges to reject corporate PAC money and clean up Washington. Potential presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, unveiled a sweeping anti-corruption bill this week. House Democrats are pushing a broad package of voting rights, ethics, and campaign-finance reforms.

“I think there’s an appetite in the public for real reform,” says Representative John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland who heads the House’s Democracy Reform Task Force. “We intend to make it the first order of business legislatively if Democrats get the gavel back in the House, or Senate, or both.”

Democrats have long recognized that they must go beyond criticizing the Trump administration’s ethics abuses, says Sarbanes, and push concrete proposals to restore accountability. Good government advocates say the mood among voters evokes the Watergate climate in the 1970s. Every Voice, which opposes big money in politics, helped lead a “Fix Democracy Now” campaign this summer to pressure candidates to promote voting rights, an end to gerrymandering, and political money reforms.

Not that holding elected officials accountable is easy, particularly when that elected official is the president. Justice Department policy is that sitting presidents may not be indicted for crimes. If Democrats retake the House but not the Senate, which may prove a heavier lift, any moves they make to overhaul the rules, or to censure or otherwise constrain Trump, would invariably be blocked in the upper chamber. And even if the House votes to impeach the president, the Senate requires a two-thirds supermajority—67 votes—to convict.

Still, the 16 felony counts against two top Trump lieutenants this week throw the president on defense and deliver momentum to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Manafort faces a second trial in September to address alleged violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and other charges, which will refocus attention on the Trump team’s ties to Russia-linked players.

Even more threatening to Trump than the Mueller probe, say some legal experts, is Cohen’s admission this week that he followed Trump’s orders to pay hush money to two women who claimed affairs with Trump, in violation of campaign-finance laws. “For the first time since the Trump presidency began,” wrote election law expert and scholar Richard Hasen in Slate, “President Donald Trump is in some real legal jeopardy, providing potential grounds for his eventual impeachment, if not indictment.”

Campaign-finance questions could also prove surprisingly important to Mueller’s probe, given election laws that bar foreigners from giving money or any “other thing of value” to a campaign, and in light of Trump’s own public statements and actions, which included inviting Russians to release more of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Violating the campaign-finance laws may, indeed, be commonplace, as constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz argued this week in defending Trump. But in outlining the charges against Cohen, Robert Khuzami, the deputy U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, made clear that “everybody does it” won’t fly in court. His office “will not fear prosecuting additional” campaign-finance cases, Khuzami warned. He also issued a statement with special resonance for Trump. Cohen’s “day of reckoning,” Khuzami said, “serves as a reminder that we are a nation of laws, with one set of rules that applies equally to everyone.”

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